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Tool: Learning from problems of practice

Purpose of this tool: Teachers encounter multiple challenges and puzzles of teaching and learning every day. Identifying these challenges and puzzles and investigating them closely with other teachers can be vital opportunities for teacher learning. This tool will help you and your colleagues address the problems of practice that arise in your classrooms and school and hone your skills and commitment to the critical reflection necessary to teach all students well.

How to use this tool: Presenting teachers bring their problems of practice and relevant student work samples to the study group. It will help if the group appoints a facilitator to ensure that the presenter and other group members get heard and that they stay focused on the problem under study. The group should complete the analysis by the end of the allotted time so that the presenting teacher does not feel like she or he is left exposed.

Exploring problems of practice together

Presentation of a problem: The presenting teacher distributes copies of the selected student work and shares information on the students, the context and the assignment. The teacher then describes the problem or question that s/he wants to examine. The presenting teacher should provide enough details so that the group gets a clear picture of the problem and the conditions that surround it.

Reading the work: The participants examine the student work silently, taking notes on facets of the work that the participants think are particularly relevant to the presenter’s problem.

Discussion: The participants engage with the presenting teacher in discussing various aspects of the problem presented, how it is manifested in the students’ work and how the teacher can address it. A central goal of the discussion is to engage the presenting teacher in looking closely at the student work to determine how the students are engaging in and learning through the task. The discussion should also help the presenting teacher look at student work and learning in new ways and to develop multiple perspectives on the problem under study. To do this, the group helps the presenting teacher “push” on description, interpretation, evaluation and alternative courses of action. The following questions can help to do this:


  • Could you describe that more? I can’t quite see it clearly yet?
  • What did you see in the work that makes you think that?
  • Could you say more about X in the work or in the context? Maybe it is important to your problem or to the students and their learning.
  • How might your own and your students’ race, gender or class be informing the way you understand this problem? How could you consider these issues in your description of the problem and/or of the student work?


  • That’s a possible explanation. What’s another one?
  • That’s a possible explanation. Here’s another one that I see as I look at the students’ work/as I listen to your description…
  • That’s how I usually think about it. How else can I think about it?
  • If we think about issues of race, class or gender, what kinds of explanations emerge?
  • What is gained by this explanation? What might be lost? For whom? How?


  • What’s at stake here? Who could gain or lose in this situation? What? Why?
  • What should we care about in this situation? Why?
  • What evidence do I (you, we) have from the students’ work or the context for reaching that conclusion?

Alternative courses of action:

  • What are the possible consequences for me (you) in this course of action?
  • What are the possible consequences for my (your) students? Will the consequences be the same for all my (your) students? How might they be different for different students?
  • What other courses of action could I (you) take?
  • What are the possible consequences for me (you) and my (your) students?

Debriefing: The session ends with the group identifying what they learned through the process, what facilitated this learning and what issues they, as a group, may need to address in the future.

References: The discussion questions are adapted from Tom Bird’s (2003 – 2004) “Deliberate practice” and “push” process.” Department of Teacher Education, Michigan State University.

For further examples of analyzing problems of practice together see: